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Karina's Column

An insider’s view on the City of London and beyond

No more heroes anymore


Peter Sutherland, Margrethe Vestager et al

Already four decades ago the cry went up, “No more heroes, anymore.” Sung by punk rock band The Stranglers, it rings true for our era. But that is too facile a judgment.

Peter Sutherland, who died last week, was assuredly an exception. A larger than life Irishman whose deep faith was nurtured by the Jesuits, they instilled in him the belief that “you’re on earth for a purpose: to maximise your own abilities,” as he told me a few years ago.

With that ethos, he initiated the Erasmus Scheme when he was European Commissioner for Education, which has so far sponsored over 3 million EU students studying abroad; he bulldozed through the agreement to form the World Trade Organisation (WTO) when he was Director-General of its precursor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT); latterly, he served as the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration.

Despite his stellar career, he constantly questioned how he got to where he was, “genuinely, with humility, because I know the humble failings that I have…which I am not going to identify! I have had the luck of Old Nick.”

Sutherland believed in the market economy and globalisation, which another hero, this one still alive, is doing her best to support. EU Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager is a former leader of the Danish Social Liberal Party and the inspiration for the Prime Minister character in globally broadcast Danish series Borgen. She was her country’s Minister for Economic Affairs and the Interior and took on the sacred cow of unemployment benefits, cutting them drastically.

In her current role, Vestager is facing up to the oligopolistic power and derisory tax payments of Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google, while tackling other abuses by large corporates like Russia’s Gazprom.

A front runner to succeed EU President Jean-Claude Juncker when his term expires next year, her candidacy is helped by belonging to a small country. She is very aware that it is only through taming the extremes of the market economy that we can we hope to reconfigure – and thus protect – a system that has brought hundreds of millions out of poverty. Ideologically neutral, happy to attack either welfare excess or corporate excess, Vestager would add a hefty dose of heroic pragmatism to the role of EU President.

Not all heroes have the larger than life personalities of Sutherland or Vestager. With some, only time will tell if their bravery was visionary or misguided. Was Angela Merkel the Chancellor who presided over Europe’s most successful economy; successfully tackled the euro crisis; and cleverly incorporated 1 million refugees into Germany to compensate for its low birth rate?

Or, the opposite, a nationalist who parasitically allowed Germany’s economy to thrive on the back of the travails of Southern European nations; opened the borders to 1 million refugees who will never assimilate, thus sowing the seeds of Central and Eastern Europe’s disillusionment and subsequent departure from the EU? Only history will tell.

There are also heroes who labour on thankless tasks, aware that the result will be ignominy for them. As the British prepared to leave India in 1947, the decision to partition it threw up the most complex task imaginable: deciding on the boundary lines dividing the Punjab and Bengal provinces with their mishmash of Hindu and Muslim populations. Eighty-eight million people, their homes and hovels, their rice paddies and pastures, all 175,000 square miles to be divided between Pakistan and India, with the leaders-to-be of those countries unable to agree. As Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre recount in their masterful book Freedom at Midnight, brilliant British barrister Sir Cyril Radcliffe took on the responsibility, knowing that no matter what he did, there would be terrible bloodshed and slaughter when his report was published and his name would be mud. It came to pass.

This column is dedicated to those fallible human beings who labour for a better world. Acknowledged or unacknowledged in their time, I leave the last words to German philosopher Schopenhauer.

‘Once, when I was collecting specimens under an oak tree, I found, among the other plants and weeds, and of the same size as they, a plant of a dark colour with contracted leaves and a straight, rigid stalk. When I made to touch it, it said in a firm voice: “Let me alone, I am no weed for your herbarium, like these others to whom nature has given a bare year of life. My life is measured in centuries: I am a little oak tree.”

Thus does he whose influence is to be felt across the centuries stand, as a child, a youth, often still as a man, indeed as a living creature as such, apparently like the rest and as insignificant as they. But just give him time and, with time, those who know how to recognise him. He will not die like the rest.’

From Schopenhauer Essays and Aphorisms, published by Penguin.